To folks east of the Mississippi the name John Murray probably rings a bell as an angler who came out east in the late 90s with anglers such as Skeet Reese, Aaron Martens and Byron Velvick. They know he’s won a couple events, generally makes the Classic and probably also know him as a better deep-water angler who’s always in contention when the tour travels to the northern-tier lakes or southern highland impoundments such as Smith Lake. This is all correct but there’s actually a lot more to John Murray than those stats.
In all actuality, Murray’s been fishing professionally since 1985 when his early mentor Art Price told him to leave the tackle shop he was working at. Since then he’s won 31 boats, fished 7 Bassmaster Classics and won the U.S. Open on Lake Mead twice. He’s fished every major tournament trail and a number of regional trails over the course of his 29-year career and overall he’s won nearly $2-million dollars casting for cash. Yes, he’s been around a while.
In this installment of Breaking Through we’re going to look into his early life as an angler and talk about some of his first tournament experiences.
“My earliest memory of catching a bass was at my aunt’s pond in Illinois,” Murray said. “I was maybe five years old and I can still remember that bass jumping. Most people think I’d have caught my first fish in Arizona but that’s not what happened.”
His first tournament would be only eight years later – a local two-day charity event at Lake Saguaro and Canyon Lake close to the Phoenix area.
“I fished my first tournament when I was 13 years old. Basically my dad and I had been fishing a lot and we’d see these guys in bass boats catching fish. I really wanted a ride in a bass boat, we had a 12-foot aluminum boat, so my dad entered me in this big local pro-am and I got to fish with a pro. I caught three fish and my pro caught nothing. That’s what got me hooked. I think I’ve fished every other weekend since then.”
The Murrays graduated from the 12-foot aluminum to a 16-foot aluminum and finally a 16 1/2-foot Ebbtide with a 140-horsepower Evinrude. They also joined the Arizona Bass Club, the biggest club in Arizona, if not the U.S., at the time.
“We joined the Arizona Bass Club shortly after that first tournament,” he said. “The Club was started by Fred Ward and would field at least 50 boats (Editor’s Note: I have witnessed the club with over 100 boats on the water at a time) in each tournament. Because the club was so big and it had all the top Arizona anglers in it, it was really like fishing a pro event.
“Then, at the age of 14, I entered my first tournament on the pro side. It was the same tournament my dad had entered me in the year before, instead this time it was held on Roosevelt Lake because Canyon and Saguaro were too small. I ended up winning big fish for the tournament.”
From that point on he fished as many events as he could.
“My first pro tournament was a SWAB (Southwest Association of Bassmasters) tournament and I fished Western Bass, U.S. Bass, West Coast Bass, All Star Bass and Sun Country Bass. I also fished some of the regional circuits like Angler’s Choice and Red Man. I’ve never had a real job – and Skeet (Reese) likes to remind me of that all the time.
“Actually I did have a real job,” he recanted. “It was in Fred Ward’s tackle shop when I was 16 or 17. I worked there for three days and hated every minute of it. At the time I was fishing with Art Price and Art told me if I wanted to make it fishing that I needed to fish and I better get out of the shop. I never went back and that was the only time I’ve ever had a normal job.”
It was around the same time that he would win his first event.
“Tempe Marine used to have a circuit that would draw all the top anglers from Arizona,” he said. “Again, because of the caliber of anglers fishing it, it was more like a pro event than anything.
“I was, again, either 16 or 17 and was fishing on the pro side of this two-day tournament on Lake Alamo. I’d never won before and it was really nice to finally break through and win one. To top that off I won on a lure I’d never really had any success with – a 1-ounce twin spin called a Sabre made by a local Arizona company. I’d found fish in 25 feet of water on a ledge with trees and it was the perfect bait that week.”
The Move East
The natural progression most people think there is in the sport, especially for western anglers, is to move east and fish B.A.S.S. That was the move Murray eventually took when he was 20 years old.
“I’d always read Bassmaster Magazine and wanted to fish the B.A.S.S. tournaments,” he said. “So one day I hooked up my boat and drove across country to the Harris Chain. It was the ‘85 or ’86 Megabucks event and not only did I know nothing about the Harris Chain, I knew nothing about how to fish Florida period. I did horrible in the tournament (he finished 124th and cashed a check for $450), had a good time and learned a little.
“The biggest thing I walked away from that event with was I need to fish my strengths and not try to fish like I hear or read about in Bassmaster. In fact, it took me a while to learn that.
“I spent my early years donating back east,” he said. “Then I’d come home and earn some more money. That was my philosophy. I had tons of confidence in the west. You couldn’t stop me there. Out east I was like a brand new fisherman. It was a confidence thing for me.
“Then when I figured out that I could make them eat what I wanted them to eat, I started doing better. Now I fish like I fish out west. That’s what I did wrong at the beginning – now I make them eat the drop-shot.”
It’s a Lonely Road
Most anglers travel with friends and confidants when they’re on the road. It makes life a lot more bearable and also acts as a safety net in the event you need some help.
When Murray started out in 1986, he did it alone.
“When I started to come back east I didn’t have a co-angler, non-boater or anyone travelling with me,” he said. “That was a real problem – I didn’t have any friends to travel with and a lot of tournament fishing is about having friends around.
“That’s another big reason I kept going back out west – I had mentors such as Art Price and other friends and I didn’t have that in the east.
“At first I didn’t think I needed anyone, but looking back that was wrong.”
He fished the B.A.S.S. Trail off and on for a number of years until Bassmaster headed west in 1997. At that point he’d made friends in western anglers such as Skeet Reese, Brett Hite and a number of others who’d started qualifying for the eastern trails.
“Everything changed for me when Skeet and a bunch of the other guys from the west started fishing out here. That’s when I said, ‘I have to start fishing out there again.’ It felt more at home.”
East vs. West
As mentioned in the introduction of this story, Murray’s been there and done that when it comes to fishing. Although he’s had success in the east, the west has been really good to him over his career. I was curious what his thoughts were about this and how he compared the two fisheries, east and west.
“To me it all falls down to versatility,” he said. “In the west the lakes are versatile and that means the anglers have to be versatile. For example, in the west we could have a trail that requires us to go from Shasta to Mead and then to the Delta – three completely different bodies of water.
“In the east there are grass lakes and then grass lakes that are a little deeper, that’s it. Yes, you do have a few lakes like Lewis Smith that are clear and a little deeper but for the most part, you have to be a good power fisherman who’s good in the grass and willing to cover water until you find them.
“I’ve never been like that. I’m more of a Havasu (ultra-clear water) guy – find the fish and then figure out how to catch them. It’s a different way of approaching the game.”
As mentioned before, Murray’s been at the cast-for-bass game a while and attributes becoming a professional angler to Art Price.
“Art got me thinking about bass fishing. He taught me how to tournament fish and got me out of that tackle shop. If I wanted to become better, I had to fish. That and my quick success in the west really gave me the confidence I needed to fish professionally.
“I used to be of the belief that if you were a good angler, you didn’t need sponsors. In fact I used to argue that with Skeet all the time.
“Then when I was having trouble catching them I needed sponsors. In that way Skeet’s really opened my eyes and helped me a lot.”
So after over 35 years of competitive fishing, how does Murray feel about his choice for a career?
“It’s all I’ve ever known. There’s always good and bad with everything but overall it’s been an awesome career.”
I bet we won’t see him working a